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Iraq's young 'PUBG generation' schools its politicians

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Baghdad (AFP)

It was a sea of white: students in school uniforms and lab coats demanding change in Iraq, where youth make up most of the population but benefit from few of the government's policies.

They stole the spotlight on Monday by joining a wave of anti-government protests in Iraq's capital and south, ignoring threats of arrest and parents worried by violence that has so far left more than 200 dead.

Samara, who studies engineering at Baghdad's Dijlah University, said she was rallying without her family's knowledge.

"They called us the PUBG generation," she said, referring to a combat video game that is so popular among Iraqi youth that parents often scold them for playing it too much.

"Look what the PUBG generation can do," she said.

Young Iraqis claim a generational gulf between them and the country's politicians -- chief among them 77-year-old premier Adel Abdel Mahdi.

"Adel, chief of thieves!" they chanted.

About 60 percent of Iraq's 40-million-strong population is under the age of 25.

But youth unemployment stands at 25 percent and one in five people live below the poverty line, despite the vast oil wealth of OPEC's second-largest crude producer.

Corruption is widespread, with a parliamentary probe this year finding $450 billion (410 billion euros) in public funds have been stolen since the 2003 US-led invasion that ended Saddam Hussein's rule.

Many youths blame an entrenched system of clientelism that they say provides jobs based on personal connections or bribes rather than university degrees or experience.

"They steal billions and billons of dollars while the people don't see any of the country's resources," said Tareq, a third-year dentistry student in Baghdad.

- 'Take care of our country' -

Their ire has engulfed more than just the premier.

"We had one Saddam before. Now we have a parliament full of Saddams," said Rafal, a young business administration student protesting in Baghdad.

"Young graduates are working as taxi drivers," she lamented.

"We have to reopen the factories that have been closed for years and find jobs for young labourers," Rafal told AFP.

Students have chanted classic protest slogans, including, "We sacrifice our souls and blood for you Iraq!"

But they have also come up with their own, including "No country? No class!"

And in Najaf, striking medical students held up a banner reading: "Don't just teach us to take care of the sick -- teach us to take care of our country."

In nearby Basra, an oil-rich city where public services remain shockingly poor, students filled the streets.

"We're out here to ask for our rights -- our right to education, our right to life, and when we graduate, to get appointed to a job," said one student, Ali.

Ahead of Monday's protests, higher education minister Qusay al-Suhail said academics should "stay away" from protests, and a spokesman for Abdel Mahdi threatened "severe punishment" for any further disruptions.

Students went out anyway, and have circumvented blocks on social media by downloading virtual private network (VPN) apps.

On Facebook and messaging application WhatsApp, they shared news on protests, coordinated movements and meetings, and offered tips on avoiding closed roads to reach rallies.

"We said to ourselves, we need to back these protests in our own way," said Alaa, a high school student demonstrating in Baghdad.

- Democracy, open-mindedness -

Professors, too, are taking part.

The Iraqi Syndicate of Teachers announced a four-day strike across the country, except in the autonomous north.

Raghad, a university professor, said her students inspired her and she was taking to the streets "to support them."

"The authorities shouldn't cross this generation, because they were raised on democracy and open-mindedness," she said proudly.

Since protests erupted on October 1, almost 240 people have died across the country from live rounds, heavy tear gas use and in fires set to political offices.

On Monday, security forces fired tear gas at young protesters gathering on the edge of Tahrir Square, near a bridge leading to the high-security Green Zone which hosts government offices and foreign embassies.

Those gathered said they knew the rallies could turn violent but were hoping their presence could prevent that.

"This movement must stay peaceful, because the blood of our young people is precious," said Raghad.

"And the people of the Green Zone aren't worth dying for."

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